Posted: October 01, 2010
Executive edge: Margaret Kelly
RE/MAX chief knows how to tackle tough timesBy Lynn Bronikowski
Margaret Kelly walks into her office at RE/MAX headquarters to news that home sales in July plunged to the lowest level in 15 years despite low mortgage rates and bargain prices.
"We knew there was going to be a fall because of the tax incentive ending. It's no different than cash for clunkers," said Kelly, who in 2005 was named CEO of RE/MAX.
"The biggest mistake of the past five years is that too many people actually thought that you could buy a home and three or four years later make 50 percent on it and walk away. Everybody says we are in the new normal - no, we're not. That was the old abnormal. We are back to what normal is."
The company saw the downturn coming. "We got lean, and we got smart," said Kelly, who oversees 95,000 agents in 80 countries, plus 400 employees at its Denver Tech Center headquarters. Gone was the corporate jet; real estate offices were consolidated and agents were trained how to handle foreclosures and bank-owned properties.
"We are not dealing with distressed properties; we are dealing with distressed people," Kelly said. "Tough times are when you shine, and we have incredible survivors."
Even the company's once fun and humorous television commercials took a new slant.
"We decided our commercials needed to be serious and needed to be the voice of authority. I was truly honored that they selected me to do them," said Kelly, 50, who believes it was important for a woman to do the spots since most home-buying decisions are made by women and 55 percent of the company's agents are women.
"When we filmed, they told me to think like I was talking to someone next to me, so I envisioned my mother, who has passed away. You don't see mom there, but she's walking right there with me in those commercials."
While her mother was her inspiration for commercials, the Detroit native credits her father for her work ethic. From the time she was 13, she spent 10 years working in his small machine shop making nuts and bolts for the auto industry.
"It was hot, stinky, loud, and it wasn't fair that I had to work when all my friends were off playing somewhere, but I learned hard work," she said. "I had eight hours a day with only my thoughts and dreamed about college - and then dreamed and schemed until I finally got there."
She earned an accounting degree at Oakland Community College and went on to Walsh College in Troy, Mich., where she met her husband, John Kelly, and the couple moved to Denver in 1982.
After answering a small newspaper ad she joined RE/MAX in 1987 as a financial analyst and had 10 titles before being named CEO.
"My parents were incredibly modest down-to-earth people, who didn't do flashy things, so as certain promotions came along, my mind always went, ‘No, that's for other people,''' she said. "But as each opportunity came along I was smart enough to say I'd do it and I'd work hard and do my homework."
Over a two-year span from 1999 to 2001, she faced a series of crises - her father died; she had breast and cervical cancer and emergency back surgery.
"It really tests the mettle, but I am a stronger person," she said. "I learned that you don't put things off like telling someone they're important. And I don't sweat a lot of the little things."
She became a spokeswoman for the Susan G. Komen Foundation while RE/MAX became a national sponsor. She'll be walking in this month's Komen Race for the Cure.
"I wouldn't trade what I went through," she said. "Through it all I realized how strong I can be and how strong my husband and my kids can be."
Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.